Aldo Leopold: An environmental legacy on the Muds of March

By Michael Mentzer

It might be difficult to fathom in the midst of this brutal winter, but these are days of seasonal awakening and subtle changes that stir us for reasons we barely comprehend.

I have a theory that it’s part of our genetic makeup that ties us to the way we’ve evolved as a species over millions of years. It defies mere reason. We sense the changes in and around us more than we comprehend them.

We somehow feel that survival is in the air.

Can it be the changing angle of light, the daily progression of a few more minutes of light despite the cold, the realization that warmer weather is inevitable?

‘Sand County’ whispers

It’s this time of year that an almost imperceptible vibe reaches me…and then a whisper and then the clarion call of the tattered old book with the Canada geese on the cover and the flurry of little yellow post-it notes positioned at meaningful locations throughout the book.

It’s my “Sand County Almanac,” a book with my name printed in red ink in a boyish hand from long ago, that calls out to me. It’s the book that, over the course of decades, elevated my thinking and changed me and the way I perceive the natural world around me.

It’s like sustenance in a way, savored especially this time of year on wintry nights that I know won’t last much longer.

No wonder the author of this “Sand County” enlightenment is honored during the first full weekend of March each year in Wisconsin. In fact, other states are following the Badger State in this regard.

Aldo Leopold Weekend

By proclamation first signed in 2004 by the Wisconsin Legislature, the first full weekend in March is named in honor of Aldo Leopold, a man with roots in Wisconsin as deep as prairie blue stem, acclaimed author, natural scientist, forester, evangelist of the environmental movement, hunter, maker of bows and arrows, University of Wisconsin professor in 1933 of the newly created UW Department of Wildlife Management and first chairman of the department in 1939, a founder of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, devoted husband of Estella and father of five children who have devoted their lives and careers to natural sciences and conservation of natural resources.

Gauging by his accomplishments, influence and the sweep of his powerful “Almanac” and related writings, it would make sense to assume that most people, especially citizens of Wisconsin, would know all about him.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. But his story and his impact continue to grow. Aldo Leopold Weekend has become just one of many vehicles, along with the Leopold Foundation and the Leopold Center near the Wisconsin River, for carrying Leopold’s environmental message.

Changed the world

In the case of environmental issues, Aldo Leopold virtually changed the world and defined the concept of “land ethic” and humanity’s relationship to the world it inhabits, uses and often abuses.

He taught in his writings and his teachings and in his example that land is not a commodity — it is a community.  And he stressed that people are citizens of that “land community,” not just users and abusers.

In brilliantly written essays, he pointed out that humanity’s responsibility is to conserve and preserve, not exploit and destroy.

The essays in “Sand County Almanac” were fashioned over a period of decades and published in 1949, the year after Leopold died fighting a grass fire on a neighbor’s farm near his famous Wisconsin River shack.

That was 65 years ago, but the message resonates loud and clear over the course of decades to anyone who cares to read what the great man wrote.

The Turkish edition is the latest to be made available. The people of Turkey this year are reading the essays that have captivated the people of Wisconsin and other countries and created an environmental unity that reaches around the world.

Framing the message

In March of 1948, Leopold penned the Foreword for “Sand County,” which would first appear in published form a year later.

He explained three distinct levels of his book and how he hoped to weld the concepts of ecology, love and respect for land, and the land’s yield of “cultural harvest.”

He wrote: “Such a view of land and people is, of course, subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias.

“But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal clear: our bigger and better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.”

He expressed his concern another way in a 1924 essay titled “The River of the Mother of God.” He wrote: “We fall back into the biological category of the potato bug which exterminated the potato, and thereby exterminated itself.” The Yale Review rejected the essay. It was found decades later in Leopold’s desk drawer and published in 1991 as part of “The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold.”

Our young people

I believe the future belongs to the hearts and minds and passion of our young people. So many of them seem to “get it.” Green is not merely a color for many of them; it’s a movement, maybe even a mission to which they’re devoted.

If I had the power or the influence, I would assign them to read whatever possible about the natural world and natural science, to travel to the Leopold family Shack and farm near Baraboo and the Wisconsin River, to tour the Leopold Center nearby, and to ponder the meaning of “land ethic” and what it means to be a member of the land community.

If I could, I’d convince them to read Leopold’s “Good Oak,” “The Geese Return,” “Marshland Elegy,” “Thinking Like a Mountain,” “Back from the Argentine” (an essay about upland plover, which has particular meaning to those of us from Fond du Lac), and “Prairie Birthday.”

I’d suggest that they read the biography of Aldo Leopold by Curt Meine (I first read it 25 years ago—can’t believe that many years have passed since then); “A Fierce Green Fire” by Marybeth Lorbiecki (a book about a life-changing moment in Leopold’s life); and “The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold” (it’s hard to find but a treasure worth the search).

And for the sheer historical perspective and down-to-earth Aldo Leopold anger in written form, I’d recommend a 1938 letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal titled “Letter to a Wildflower Digger.”

I wouldn’t stop there. I would ask young people, my grandchildren included, to see two exceptional documentary films, the acclaimed “Green Fire” and the soon-to be released “From Billions to None,” the story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Preserving the message

If young people in their openness would read those essays and view those documentaries, I’m confident they would be changed for the better for a lifetime. They need to be exposed to that perspective.

I believe they would want to learn more and read more about what Aldo Leopold and other thinkers have to share about the future of the planet we all take too much for granted.

Today, there are countless passages from Leopold essays that run through my mind. When I place a slab of bur oak on the fireplace grate, I envision husband and wife Aldo and Estella working together to cut up an oak tree on their farm.

“Rest cries the chief sawyer and we pause for breath” writes Leopold in his February essay of Wisconsin environmental history told in the sawdust of the 80-year-old oak.

When I read about the hunting season on wolves in Wisconsin, I think of Leopold and wonder what he would say if he were alive today.

Remembering the day in 1909 that he and fellow foresters opened fire on a pack of wolves, Leopold wrote in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in 1944,  “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and the mountain.”

But I realize the essay that I treasure most is the one that touched me first when I read “Sand County” more than 30 years ago.

The Muds of March

“The Geese Return” tells of a time when the numbers of Canada geese had dwindled dangerously low, a concept hard to comprehend in light of the huge goose population of today. And in a significant way, the essay is about March, the month of Aldo.

Leopold speaks of survival and migration and the unity of continents and flyways afforded by waste corn and the unrelenting migrations of Canada geese.

He writes: “By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds to the Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands between.

“And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.”

I know there soon will be murky skies and wild poems and the muds of March beneath our wings and feet.

Even a winter like this one cannot prevent them.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for SCENE.


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